Photo credits: Nikos Karanikolas/Mahmut Cimci
The theory goes that Odysseus passed this way on his wandering return from his rumble in Troy, and as I take in the views from Poseidonion Square, I begin to wonder if perhaps all those tales of Cyclops and sirens were just a cover story for an extended sojourn in this slice of paradise.
I’d happily linger in the race start area for a decade or so, with the sky the kind of heavenly blue you’d expect Zeus to use in the family nursery, and the waterfront cafes looking out over the masts of yachts slow-dancing to the gentle rhythm of glittering Myrtoan Sea. But, like the others milling around in intent-signaling shorts and singlets I’m about to set forth on my own little odyssey, a 25km race that will take us on a full circumnavigation of the 22sq/km island of Spetses, the southernmost of the Argosaronic islands, lying just off the coast of the Greek mainland’s Peloponnese peninsula.
The ‘mini marathon’ is the culmination of a multi-event weekend including a 5K (which my wife is currently limbering up for), a 10K, several kids’ races, and 3,000m swim across the Bogazi Channel from the mainland.
The atmosphere is as warm as the early-morning sun, though the increasing strength of the latter is giving me slight cause for concern. The Greek sun god Helios must be giggling into his Sugar Puffs as I have race sponsor’s sunscreen liberally applied to my pigmentally-challenged Celtic skin.
With a mere 700 runners, the start is a low-key affair and after leaving the square we flow in a tight bunch along traffic-free Spetses Town’s seafront. As if no match for the rising sun, the villas, boutiques and tavernas soon melt away, leaving us under the sporadic parasols of pine trees.
The field too soon spreads thin, with the breathing and footfall of runners giving way to the ambient sounds of nature carried on the breeze as we follow the winding curves and contours of the coast road. Once outside Spetses Town the island feels almost untouched, aside from the road beneath my feet and occasional gates whispering of opulent villas concealed beyond. As the kilometres tick by, a conservative start means I’m gradually moving up through the sparse field, reeling in solo runners or small groups who, collectively, are just enough to remind me that I’m in a race, but not enough to intrude on an increasingly intimate connection with the island’s natural beauty.
There is, however, a price to pay. With a total 1,250ft (381m) of climb, it’s hardly Alpine, but the road undulates in sync with the hilly coastline and – as the effervescently friendly proprietor of a taverna had shown me on the previous evening – there are notable lumps in the elevation profile at six and 12km. My diminutive stature and decent power-to-weight ratio generally help me on hilly courses, but by the second significant lump, Helios is really having some fun with me and my pace drops to what would generously be classed as ‘sedate’.
Thankfully, whenever my internal temperature dial seems to be veering into the unpleasant one of the well-stocked water stations magically materialises out of the heat haze and I can split a chilled bottled between rehydration and a blissful drenching. Then I can focus again on the pine forests tumbling down the hillsides and resist the lure of descending paths with their promises of secluded beaches, and even a sign with that siren’s call: ‘Beach Bar’.
Returning to the outskirts of Spetses Town means negotiating tight turns through narrow cobbled streets where flowers tumble from balconies in cascades of brilliant colour. There’s a single runner ahead of me, but the gap between us is no longer narrowing. I'm carrying a momento of Spetses’ hills in my calves, so I forget about the nascent race-within-a-race and focus on savouring these final yards.
Soon we’re hugging the harbour front, funneling through tight corridors of spectators crowding the cafes and bars, clapping us on between sips of chilled espresso. Then the course opens up into a final push for the square where the finish line lazes in the sun. The guy in front has faded but I mirror his drop in pace so as to not pass him before the line, after which we exchange the wearily elated smiles of shared experience.
An hour later, after a wander through what seems to be a town-wide post-race party and consuming enough water to put the Sahara in bloom, I’m sat with my wife on an idyllic taverna terrace at the water’s edge, refueling on freshly-caught fish and ice-cold local beer. I can fully understand how once you discover Spetses, it may take quite some time to get home.
The 2017 Spetses mini Marathon is on the 8th October - spetsesmarathon.com
1FLY EasyJet (easyjet.com) flies to Athens from Gatwick and regional airports from £31. From Athens it’s a two-hour drive and short hop on the ferry to Spetses, or you can take a Hydrofoil from nearby Piraeus harbour (two to three hours).
There are lots of hotels on Spetses itself but it’s busy over race weekend so staying a water taxi across away in Porto Heli is a good option (Nikki Beach Resort from £153 per night, nikkibeach.com). Or for one-in-a-lifetime luxury, the Amanzoe Resort, Porto Heli, is a 10-minute speedboat ride away (from €850 per night) - aman.com/resorts/amanzoe
Spetses mini marathon 2016 results
First Man: Merousis Christoforos
First Woman: Deniz Dimaki
Last Finisher: 4:00:32
No. of finishers: 450
Total Ascent 381m
1:26 – 2:09 15%
2:10 – 2:29 31%
2:30 – 2:49 32%
2:50 – 3:09 16%